It pains me to see youths growing indifferent to religion,” said Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar at Manmad Railway Workers Conference in 1938. “Religion is not an opium as is held by some. What good things I have in me or whatever benefits of my education to the society, I owe them to the religious feelings in me.”
This quote may come as a surprise to many people who follow Ambedkarism today, without reading him. That is because India’s Leftist Ambedkarite activists have portrayed him as antithetical to religion. But Ambedkar was no Karl Marx. ‘Religion is the opium of the masses’, Marx famously said, but Ambedkar viewed religion as an essential component of society. And so, a person can be all three – a Hindu, a nationalist and an Ambedkarite – without there being any contradiction. This stands starkly opposed to the ideological narrative that advocates the false idea that Ambedkar’s thoughts and nationalism cannot co-exist.
Ambedkar attached a great level of importance to religion, which will not be palatable to the present generation of Communists who want to monopolise his legacy.
Advocating temple entry for members of the oppressed classes through peaceful protest was Ambedkar’s hallmark. The followers of Periyar in Tamil Nadu pose a grand ambiguity when they support irrational obliteration of Hindu establishments and claim to be Ambedkarites at the same time.
During the definitive stage of his life, Ambedkar was struggling with the question of religious conversion. Considering his immense scholarship on theology, he was convinced of weaknesses and strengths of all the Indic faiths. There has to be a strong reason as to why after much introspection and deliberation with multiple religious leadership, he commits himself to Buddhism, which is often described as an offshoot of Hinduism. Was he avoiding the likely fallout if he converted to any non-Indic faiths like Islam or Christianity? It is a question that the social historians must address and not be shy of.
Facing struggle for opposing caste
The ideas of Ambedkar were a product of the conflict of caste. His life is a testimony to this uninterrupted struggle. But Ambedkar also faced prejudice for his ideological stand against caste, from even among the Communists.
There was a special resolution in 1952 adopted by the Communist Party of India (CPI) central committee against the organisation led by Ambedkar, Scheduled Castes Federation (SCF), that said, “(U)rge for economic betterment and social equality have been given a distorted and disruptive form by their pro-imperialist and opportunist leader, Dr Ambedkar who has organised them on a communal, anti-caste Hindu basis in the SCF”.
Comes the With election comes the fear mongering – about reservation, Hindutva and Constitutional guarantees for social justice. But it is the Congress party that never allowed a freedom fighter and one of the tallest Dalit leader, Babu Jagjivan Ram, a respectable position in the party’s history or the government. Jagjivan Ram had to finally break away from the Congress party. He joined the Janata Party and went on to eventually become the deputy prime minister of the country under the Janta Party government that was supported by the Jana Sangh. Babu Jagjivan Ram as a subaltern leader does not suit the Leftist’s narrative as he was a dedicated Hindu who chose to fight the evils of the religion by remaining within the Hindu fold. Both Kanshi Ram and Mayawati did not convert to any other religion either. Dalits are devout Hindus.
But Bangaru Laxman was the first Dalit to lead a national party – the BJP, from 2000 to 2001 – in the history of Indian politics. GMC Balayogi, a lawyer, became the first Dalit to be appointed the speaker of Lok Sabha during the BJP-led NDA government. It was again the BJP that gave India its first Dalit president to the country in form of Ram Nath Kovind. (K R Narayanan, the tenth president of India, was a Christian-Dalit.) The highest number of Dalit parliamentarians today are from the BJP.
Ambedkar writes, “Ethnically all peoples are heterogeneous. It is the unity of culture that is the basis of homogeneity. Taking this for granted, I venture to say that there is no country that can rival the Indian peninsula with respect to the unity of its culture.” Culture in this context when decoded points towards our timeless civilisational conscience that has survived the test of times. Ambedkar was rooted in Indian civilization and culture.
Ambedkar is also reported to have favoured the proposal of making Sanskrit India’s official language. It was the richness of our culture which he keeps pointing to.
It is time we sincerely analyse the multiple facets of Ambedkar’s personality. And Ambedkar Jayanti (14 April) is just the right occasion to initiate a new, unbiased and constructive public dialogue on his legacy. Ambedkar’s grasp on International politics, his warnings on China, and his incomparable scholarship in the discipline of economics must be uncovered for the present generation. Restricting Ambedkar as a mere social justice crusader and an exclusive subaltern leader is a great disservice to his legacy.
The author is a former central minister, professor at Patna University and presently a member of Legislative Council in Bihar.
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